Sporting Kansas City punches ticket for MLS Cup; downs Houston in Eastern Conference final

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Sporting Kansas City is going to its third MLS Cup final – and hosting its first, as MLS Cup 2013 will be played at Sporting Park on Dec. 7.

Sporting KC got there on a frigid Saturday night with a 2-1 win over Houston in the second leg of the teams’ home-and-away aggregate goals Eastern Conference finals series. The team’s had played to a scoreless draw in the opening leg in Houston.

Benny Feilhaber, Kansas City’s former U.S. international midfield playmaker, had been rather quiet in that first contest. But he was huge in Saturday’s return leg, with an imprint on Kansas City’s first goal and a beautiful assist on Dom Dwyer’s 63rd-minute game-winner.

Fans inside the packed house at Sporting Park will certainly remember Saturday’s match for the tough conditions, the coldest temperatures ever recorded in MLS.

Temperature at kickoff was 22 degrees; the league began keeping records of weather conditions in 2003. MLS executive vice president of communications Dan Courtemanche said before the contest that he believed Saturday’s match was indeed the coldest ever (regular season or playoff) going all the way back to the league’s 1996 launch.

With Saturday’s loss, the Houston Dynamo missed a bid to play in a third consecutive MLS Cup and a fifth final in eight years. Rather, Sporting Kansas City will participate in its third MLS Cup match, but its first since losing to D.C. United in 2004. Kansas City won MLS Cup in its only other championship game appearance, in 2000 (playing then as the Kansas City Wizards).

(MORE: Sporting Kansas City Man of the Match, Dom Dwyer)

Houston was up against long odds in this one even before kickoff – and it had nothing to do with the record-setting weather. Former U.S. international midfielder Ricardo Clark, probably the most important Dynamo man other than U.S. international Brad Davis and possibly goalkeeper Tally Hall, was held out because of a knee injury collected in the opening leg. Although Clark had not trained during the two-week break, he had never officially been ruled out.

Houston was also without Will Bruin, its starting striker and a fringe U.S. national teamer.

As a result of Clark’s absence, Houston manager Dominic Kinnear pulled his team from its typical 4-4-2, re-aligning the side into a far less familiar 4-3-3 look.

(MORE: What we learned in Kansas City’s big win)

The danger of another 0-0 stalemate (like the first leg) disappeared almost immediately as Houston’s Honduran international attacker Boniek Garcia finished an early surge with a shot that deflected into Kansas City goal after just three minutes.

Houston’s early goal was classic counter attacking stuff, as Feilhaber tripped over the ball while entering Houston’s defensive third. Houston’s Davis immediately set the visitors’ counter-attack into motion, with Andrew Driver soon beating Kansas City right back Chance Myers.

Eleven minutes later C.J. Sapong pounced first and with ferocity as a ball popped loose just inside Houston’s penalty area. Collecting the ball off a Dynamo tackle as a surging Feilhaber was stripped of possession, Sapong beat Tally Hall to the far post in the 14th minute.

Missed chances on either side marked much of the match, with Dwyer and Sapong failing from inside the six-yard box for KC, and Cam Weaver going well high on an uncontested shot from eight yards for Houston.

Feilhaber was front-and-center in events once again just after the hour mark, taking a pass from a galloping Graham Zusi and chipping a wonderful pass into stride for Dwyer for the game-winner.

(MORE: Save the date — MLS Cup will be at Sporting Park on Dec. 7)

Watford signs Will Hughes from Derby County

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Watford has completed the capture of 22-year-old central midfielder Will Hughes, a fantastic transfer for one of England’s younger talents.

Hughes, despite his young age, racked up 189 appearances for Derby County (despite missing significant time in 2015 for an ACL tear) and now gets his first shot at the Premier League, and with it potentially a chance to push his way into the England fold. Hughes has been a staple for the England youth system, making 22 appearances for the country’s U-21 side but is yet to feature for the senior team.

The fee for the transfer was undisclosed but reports have tabbed the amount at around $10 million.

Hughes came close to making the Premier League with Derby County on multiple occasions, reaching the Championship playoffs in both 2014 and 2016. Now, he’ll battle the likes of Valon Behrami, Tom Cleverley, Etienne Capoue, Abdoulaye Doucoure for a spot in Watford’s midfield.

The club release confirmed that Hughes has not yet completed his medical, and will do so when he returns to the U.K. from competing in the U-21 European Championships in Poland.

New Zealand 0-4 Portugal: Ronaldo, Portugal win Group A

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New Zealand gave the 2017 Confederations Cup all they had, but they go home empty-handed as Portugal won the Group A finale 3-0 to advance to the knockout round.

Portugal held much of the possession as expected, but they found little at the end early on. The first true chance fell to Cristiano Ronaldo in the 24th minute, who latched onto a Ricardo Quaresma cross from wide right and produced a powerful header, but it was poorly directed straight to New Zealand goalkeeper Stefan Marinovic for the easy save.

[ RECAP: Mexico eliminates Russia with 2-1 comeback ]

Ronaldo had another headed chance minutes later, but he rocketed the attempt back off the post. Portugal would eventually find the opener just past the half-hour mark via the penalty spot. Danilo was clearly shoved by a pair of defenders on a set-piece, and Ronaldo easily dispatched the spot-kick for a 1-0 lead.

The favorites would double their lead just a few minutes later as Eliseu on the overlap came down the left flank and cut horizontally into the box. He fed a charging Bernardo Silva, and the in-demand Monaco attacker jumped to meet it and poked home. Silva was unable to celebrate after turning his ankle heavily on the landing, but he would come back onto the field.

[ MORE: Latest 2017 Confederations Cup news

Portugal finished things off with 10 minutes to go in the game as Andre Silva burst through the midfielder, shucked his defender, and fired past Marinovic to seal the game for good. Nani added a fourth The win means Portugal finishes level on points with Mexico at the top of Group A, winning the group on goal differential thanks to Silva’s final goal.

Mexico 2-1 Russia: Comeback seals semifinal place

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Mexico again produced a poor first half, but were saved in the final 45 minutes as Juan Carlos Osorio led the CONCACAF squad to the semifinals of the 2017 Confederations Cup.

Right off the bat, there was a controversial moment. Just five minutes into the game, Yuri Zhirkov burst into the Mexico box and went to ground under a challenge from Hector Moreno. The referee waved play on, but it appeared on replay that Moreno tripped Zhirkov. Nevertheless, no call was made and no word came from the video assistant referee.

[ RECAP: Portugal eases by New Zealand 4-0 ]

The hosts had another huge penalty shout, but the referee again waved play on as Fedor Smolov was sent flying to ground as Nestor Araujo contacted his leg from behind in the 17th minute. After about a minute of play, the VAR called for a review, but even after a look at the monitor, the referee decided there was not obvious reason to reverse the call.

With Russia applying all the pressure, they would find the breakthrough in the 25th minute. A pair of fantastic saves from Memo Ochoa went for naught as Alexandr Erokhin whiffed, but he was able to find Aleksandr Samedov who struck low past Ochoa for the opener.

[ MORE: Latest 2017 Confederations Cup news

The lead wouldn’t last long. Mexico didn’t exactly seem sparked by the deficit, but they would draw back level against the run of play just past the half-hour mark. It appeared that Nestor Araujo’s looping header was meant to set up a teammate at the far post, but it ended up chipping Igor Akinfeev and tucking inside the woodwork for the equalizer.

After halftime, Mexico scored completely out of nowhere. A bombed clearance out of the back by Hector Herrera seemed an easy collect for Akinfeev, but as the ball bounced high up into the air, Hirving Lozano charged it down and headed the ball under feeble pressure from the Russian goalkeeper. The ball bounced unchallenged into the net, and Mexico took a shock 2-1 lead.

Mexico appeared to have a third to pad the lead, but VAR took 34 seconds to correctly reverse the call as replay spotted goalscorer Hector Moreno in an offside position on the delivery. Russia was doomed to defeat when Zhirkov was given a second yellow card for a clear elbow to the face of Miguel Layun. Somehow, the hosts still had one big chance in the 72nd minute despite the disadvantage, but Igor Smolinkov somehow missed the net on what should have been a tap-in.

The win for Mexico sees them into the knockout stage, but they fail to win the group, finishing level with Portugal on 7 points but coming up short on goal differential by one. Mexico will be without Andres Guardado in the semifinals, as he was shown his second yellow card of the tournament in the first half.

Report: Arsenal owner calls Bellerin to state intentions

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According to a report by Spanish radio station Cadena SER, Arsenal owner Stan Kroenke has personally called defender Hector Bellerin to tell the Spaniard he would not be sold.

The 22-year-old experienced a serious regression at the Emirates last season, and with media speculation surrounding his potential departure, Kroenke wanted to make sure his intentions were clear. Reports had linked Bellerin with a return to his home country, most notably to Barcelona.

With Bellerin under contract through 2021 having just signed his extension last summer, it’s clear the club has decided who they believe keeping should be a priority.

The defender lost his place briefly down the stretch run last season, finding himself on the bench in seven of the club’s final 17 Premier League matches. Despite that, Arsenal still clearly values Bellerin’s talent and durability and hope to ward Barcelona’s interest off. Bellerin didn’t help cool speculation when he bought a house in Barcelona just a short time ago.

Reports say that Arsenal would not take any less than $57 million for their right-back.